Emily Rapp Black

Emily Rapp Black

By Jancie Creaney

“I have never had an expectation of privacy,” says Gotham instructor and memoirist, Emily Rapp Black. People have asked me personal questions about my body my whole life and I used to, as a kid, answer them, but now of course I don’t. I just say ‘I wrote a book. Read that.’”

In fact, Emily has written four books, two of which will be published in 2021. Sanctuary: A Memoir is“an attempt to unpack the various notions of resilience that we carry as a culture.” Frida Kahlo and My Left Leg is a book-length lyric essay that incorporates some of Kahlo’s journals and paintings, while circling Emily’s “lifelong obsession with Kahlo.”It is different, she notes, from her previous works of nonfiction. Nonetheless, it is a book that centers lived experience. “I think I got into nonfiction to build protection around myself and my stories and to frame them in a way that I chose versus having someone assume what my experience was like.”

Emily says, “Stories are opportunities to have conversations across time and history with other people who have gone through terrible and wonderful things.” The title of her second memoir, The Still Point of the Turning World, comes from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets and the book’s epigraphquotes Pablo Neruda’s “Sonnet XVI”.

“All stories have been told. There is nothing new to say, there are just new ways to say it,” Emily continues, but for the writer drudging through a tough chapter of a manuscript, an epigraph can be an anchor, a reminder of the value in continuing the conversation. There is even a conversation between the genres in Emily’s eyes. “I have a great deal of respect for the distillation of experience in poetry,” she explains. When she reads a verse written by someone else that resonates with her and returns to her own work, “then I can do what I do, which isn’t distillation,” she says, “it’s an expansion.”

With two publication dates less than six months apart, it may be difficult to believe Emily isn’t constantly writing or working on something new. “I don’t write every day. I can’t. I’m Mom. I have seven thousand jobs and I—I’m on the phone. Okay. What do you need to tell me? Okay.

She pauses to answer her daughter, Charlie, who is six years old, then starts again, right where she left off: “So, I write in ten-minute bursts.” The lack of a routine or open agenda works well for Emily. “When I was in grad school, I had plenty of time and I wasted it. The less time I have, the less time I waste.”

It is not surprising that when Emily sits down to write, she has a clear intention. Though, if the ideas are not coming, she doesn’t force it. “Our culture is about pushing forward, ‘keep trying,’” she notes. “But creativity does not flourish under strain. It flourishes under discipline, curiosity, freedom, and lightness.”

When she steps away from the writing, Emily, who lives in Redlands, California, does a lot of physical activity, from riding her trusty Peloton bike, to lifting weights, to punching heavy bags. “I get ideas either before or after [exercise] because I’m in my body instead of my circling thoughts.”

When asked why she thinks physical movement often gets the gears in the mind going, Emily offers this: “Writing is embodied because emotion is embodied. If someone hurts your feelings, you say, Oh you hurt my feelings, but before you say that, you’re going to feel it somewhere in your body.”

“Everything that comes out on the page, you’ve felt in your body.”